Just as fitness should not be confused with health and a map should not be mistaken for territory, it would be prudent not to link a tiger’s present status with its destiny. It’s something that the scientists at the Wildlife Institute of India (WII) knew all along. Only, they did not tell this to Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
Having just concluded the biggest exercise of its kind anywhere in the world to determine the status of tiger in India, the WII, in collaboration with the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA), has laid out the prognosis for the troubled big cat in the two reports released Monday. While the first report is on the nationwide tiger estimate, the other is on the state of India’s tiger reserves.
Don’t confuse numbers with health
On the numbers front, PM Modi’s exuberance is justified. We also like the intense jockeying among India’s tiger states, which saw Madhya Pradesh taking the lead by recording the maximum number of tigers, Karnataka breathing down its neck with just two tigers less and the picturesque Uttarakhand occupying the third slot with nearly two-and-a-half-fold increase in its tiger numbers since 2006. The new figures show a roughly 33 per cent increase in India’s tiger population from 2014.
But the numbers point to the tigers’ fitness, not to their health. Take Rajasthan’s Ranthambore National Park, for instance. Anybody who has been to Ranthambore would marvel at the ease with which tigers can be sighted here. Because of this, notes the NTCA-WII, it has emerged as the highest revenue-generating tiger reserve in the country, attracting some 4.7 lakh tourists annually.
But this fact could be Ranthambore’s undoing. Taking a surprisingly ominous tone, the reports come out with an unflattering diagnosis: “presently, the priority of the tiger reserve is tourism, and there is little focus on protection, scientifically planned habitat interventions and regular monitoring of various aspects of tiger reserve management. The focus needs to change”.
On Sariska, Rajasthan’s second tiger reserve, the reports don’t pull any punches. “Though over a decade has passed since the first batch of founder population was re-introduced in the area, Sariska is at risk of losing its tigers once again, due to the slow growth of tiger population,” they say.
No matter what the overall numbers might suggest, Sariska losing all its tigers again – after the 2004 wipe-out, tigers were re-introduced from outside – would be too big a blot for any government to sweep under the carpet.
The two reports – ‘Status of Tiger in India – 2018’ and ‘4th Cycle of Management Effectiveness Evaluation of Tiger Reserves in India 2018’ – underscore the numerous challenges that the tiger reserves face. These include man-animal conflicts, dearth of buffer zones, staff shortage and inadequate compensation mechanism for the villagers.
But what really comes out disturbingly in these reports is precisely what is not mentioned – acknowledging the positive role played by tourists in the protection of tigers. A cursory reading of the reports lay bare their anti-tourism stance. It’s as if tourists have been playing havoc with tiger in reserves and national parks. The facts, though, are just the opposite. It’s no coincidence that tigers are flourishing in tourist-friendly reserves, be it Bandhavgarh, Kanha and Pench in Madhya Pradesh, Corbett in Uttarakhand, Nagarhole in Karnataka, Ranthambore in Rajasthan or Tadoba Andhari in Maharashtra.
It’s as if the big cat somehow knows that it needs so many human eyes in a forest for its own safety and protection from unscrupulous elements, such as poachers and timber mafia. Removal of tourists from the scene should make their work easy.
Striking a balance is key
While openly discouraging tourism in the reserves, the reports do not bother to provide the reasons behind the hard stand. They believe that tourism and forest management cannot go together, but don’t bother to explain.
Speaking of Uttarakhand, which rates high on the tiger numbers, the state’s Chief Wildlife Warden, Rajeev Bhartari, feels that the region’s “long history of conservation” has come to the aid of the big cat. “Not many people realise that besides being a hunter of man-eating tigers and leopards, Jim Corbett of Uttarakhand was also an excellent conservationist. He spoke for and worked towards balancing conservation with human welfare. This is what our aim is, to rediscover that balance,” says Bhartari.
One of the biggest challenges is to safeguard the tigers when they move out of the protected zones. With the tiger numbers increasing in many reserves, the spillover is being seen in almost all the tiger states. Once it moves out of the reserve, a tiger often becomes a sitting duck for the poachers and angry farmers. It then becomes, what the great conservationist Billy Arjan Singh called, a “forgotten tiger”.
The author is a senior journalist and film-maker who writes on environment and wildlife. The views are personal.